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Dr. Toy Tells Parents to Participate

The importance of play in child development can't be overstated

For Stevanne Auerbach "play" is serious business. As a longtime child-development expert and president of the Institute of Childhood Resources in San Francisco, Ms. Auerbach is teaching parents about the power of play in a child's intellectual and emotional growth.

Her work and research have earned her an alias: Dr. Toy. (She does have a PhD, after all.)

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Auerbach stopped by the Monitor to talk about her new book, "Dr. Toy's Smart Play: How to Raise a Child with a High PQ*" (*Play Quotient) (St. Martin's Press, $13.95).

"The book is a culmination of my 25 years of listening to parents," she explains. Auerbach is now a grandmother and acknowledges that she wrote the book for her daughter who has a two-year-old.

"Parents have anxiety about being parents. Are they doing the right thing? How do I play with my child? What's appropriate, what's safe?"

One might say that parents' concerns haven't changed much over the years. But the craving for information has grown, she notes.

To working women who say they don't read to their children enough, she says, "Make tapes." Recently, a woman lamented to her that her two-year-old seemed to be only interested in pots and pans and what was wrong? The answer: Nothing! Next fill them with water and add a few measuring cups, Auerbach suggested.

Auerbach says she sees two extremes with children these days: They're either not doing anything (sitting in front of the tube) or their life is overplanned: "Overprogramming children is not to their benefit," she says. And if they're left to their own devices, TV often becomes a substitute for constructive play.

The extent to which Auerbach doesn't like TV is obvious: "Television has mesmerized kids into inactivity, not the mental, physical, and creative activity they need."

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What Dr. Toy emphasizes is parental involvement. "Get on the floor with them," she says. The phrase, "Oh they're in the other room playing," is too often the norm. Yes, children need varying kinds of play and environments, but parents need to be their play tutors too. "The parent is the child's first big toy," she says.

Her book offers tips on how to choose toys for specific age groups, plan activities, and find resources. Parents will appreciate the 160 suggestions of things to do with children, from action-figure play to zoo trek. Parental involvement, engaging products, and a good balance of active, creative, and educational toys serve as the basis, she says.

"If you want your child to succeed in school, you have to increase their PQ during the first five years."

Of course, nearly all parents want toys that will entertain and enrich their children, but with 300,000 toys out there, how do you choose?

Auerbach leans back and comments on the annual Toy Fair at the cavernous Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York: "Walking Javits - it's like three football fields - you need roller skates... or a go cart." She likes to seek out toys made by smaller companies that don't necessarily have a large advertising budget. Many good products get overlooked because they either aren't on commercials on Saturday mornings or toy stores don't carry them. Also, parents gravitate toward the large discount toy stores, and really the smaller, Main Street ones tend to carry better products.

To boot, parents are so busy. It's difficult to find the time to test out toys and software.

Even though Auerbach may see herself as a guide (her web site is particularly helpful), she encourages parents to do their own research.

To help facilitate better choice, Auerbach adds that she'd like to see more places where families can try out and rent toys, such as public libraries, toy libraries, and children's museums. "Play centers" - whether provided by schools or community centers - should be available as places for kids to go after school instead of going to empty apartments and houses between 3 and 6 p.m. That way they can use computers, participate in arts, crafts, and theater.

One trend Auerbach acknowledges and supports is "back to basics." Toys such as the yo-yo, jacks, clay, puzzles, simple baby dolls you can wash in the tub, and Slinkies have long been favorites. Baby-boom nostalgia aside, many parents are turning to them because they've stood the test of time.

Playing with a yo-yo for example, increases coordination, introduces the laws of physics, and encourages a sense of mastery, Auerbach says. She recalls the time a few years ago when a parent breathlessly declared, "What am I going to do? I can't find Tickle-Me-Elmo?" Auerbach suggested, "Find your child a puppet - could be any character - then tickle your child and let the puppet tickle you."

Ignite the child's imagination, she continues. "If you want your child to be a thinker and be spontaneous, you've got to give her the opportunity."

Children need varying kinds of play and environments, says child-development expert Stevanne Auerbach. But 'the parent is the child's first big toy,' she emphasizes.

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